Thornton Wilder Biography

Thornton Wilder Biography

Thornton Wilder’s biggest hit took place on an empty stage. Our Town, which remains one of the most frequently produced plays in America, revolutionized the way audiences thought about the theatrical event. In addition to its stripped-down aesthetic, the play is narrated by a stage manager who oversees the proceedings. Similarly, The Skin of Our Teeth plays with traditional notions of how time is represented theatrically. Wilder had a knack for balancing opposites in his work: simplicity and complexity, humor and pathos, and reality and fantasy. In addition to his playwriting, Wilder cemented his reputation as a novelist with the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which remains a staple of literature curricula in the United States.

Facts and Trivia

  • Wilder came from an accomplished family. His brother was a poet and tennis player who taught at Harvard and competed in Wimbledon.
  • Wilder was actually born a twin. His brother, however, did not survive childhood.
  • Wilder was well-educated. He studied at both Yale and Princeton.
  • Wilder is one of the few playwrights to have won multiple Pulitzer Prizes. The first was for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
  • Wilder’s play The Merchant of Yankees was initially a flop. When he reworked it fifteen years later as The Matchmaker, it was enormously successful. The play was eventually adapted into an even more successful musical version, Hello, Dolly!


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226317-Wilder_T.jpg Thornton Wilder Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897. He was a surviving twin, and all of his life he searched for the alter ego lost at birth. He had an older brother by two years, Amos Niven, a well-known theologian, professor, and writer. He also had three sisters: Charlotte, born in 1898; Isabel, born in 1900, a writer who devoted her life as confidant and secretary to Thornton; and Janet, born in 1910.

Thornton was named for his mother, the talented Isabella Thornton Niven, daughter of a Presbyterian minister; his brother Amos was named for their father, Amos Parker Wilder. Their father, a handsome, robust individual, held a doctorate in political science and was editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. He was a strict Congregationalist whose moral rectitude and constant career moves placed hardships on his wife and family. These served as important influences on Wilder, infusing him with a sense of unworthiness that haunted him all of his life.

Amos Parker Wilder was an uncompromising man whose strong editorial opinions clashed with those of Wisconsin’s powerful senator, Robert M. La Follette. By 1906, Amos believed it was time to leave the state and accepted the appointment of American consul in Hong Kong. After living there six months, Isabella and Amos agreed to a temporary separation. She returned to the United States with the children, to live in Berkeley, California. Over the following eight years, Thornton attended various schools as he moved back and forth across the Pacific Ocean, finally completing his high school education at Berkeley High School in 1915. Amos forced Thornton to attend Oberlin College for two years and then transferred him to Yale University, his own alma mater.

Wilder began his writing career in college. Several of his pieces appeared in the Oberlin Literary Magazine and the Yale Literary Magazine. After he graduated from Yale in 1920, he traveled to Rome and attended the American Academy, where he worked on his first novel, “The Memoirs of a Roman Student.” Thornton returned to the States to teach French at Lawrenceville Academy during the early 1920’s. He also attended Princeton University and graduated with an M.A. degree in 1926.

The same year, Thornton saw the publication of his novel, now retitled The...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Wilder remains one of America’s most beloved novelists, dramatists, and persons of letters. His books and plays are widely read and staged, continuing to give enjoyment and intellectual stimulation. Wilder was the first author to win Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and drama. His work includes both a large dose of human suffering and the belief that life is a miraculous gift to be cherished. Wilder was a mature humanist who reaffirmed the dignity of the individual and the uniqueness of American democracy. His classic work Our Town has been performed many thousands of times since its premiere in 1938.

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Thornton Niven Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17, 1897, the son of Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Thornton Niven Wilder. His father, a newspaper editor, moved the family to Hong Kong in 1906 when he was assigned a diplomatic post there. The young Wilder attended the Kaiser Wilhelm School, then the China Inland Mission Boys’ School, where he harbored a brief desire to become a missionary himself. When his family returned to the United States, settling in California, he continued his education at the Thacher School in Ojai, then Berkeley High School, where he first began to write plays and act in class productions.

In 1915, Wilder entered Oberlin College, a school his father chose because it was less socially elite than his own alma mater, Yale. At Oberlin, Wilder continued his involvement in theatrical productions and contributed prolifically to the college’s literary magazine. After two years there, Wilder was allowed by his father to enroll at Yale, where, after a period of homesickness for Oberlin, he again proved himself, in the words of professor and literary critic William Lyon Phelps, to be “a star of the first magnitudeunusually versatile, original, and clever.” Wilder graduated with no specific career goals in mind. His father, believing a European experience would be broadening, sent him to study at the American Academy in Rome for a summer. Meanwhile, he searched for a suitable job for his son and found one at Lawrenceville, a preparatory school in New Jersey.

Wilder soon began a novel with the working title Memoirs of a Roman Student, which was published as The Cabala in 1926. In the same...

(The entire section is 681 words.)